Method of screening for COPD and lung cancer

One breath detects lung cancer at an early stage

Lung cancer, one of the most common cancers, is also one of those that has the worst prognosis. When a lung tumour has been diagnosed, it has often grown to such a size that it cannot be treated effectively. To date there has not been an opportunity for any screening of lung cancer, i.e. the examination of a large number of people to catch the disease at an early stage.

Simple and inexpensive method

However, researchers with links to Chromalytica AB in Malmö have now developed a simple and inexpensive method for lung cancer screening.

“The method is simple, non-invasive and does not require a nurse or doctor”, says Francesco Palmisano, biomedical engineer and project leader. The only thing the patient needs to do is blow into a bag that has a special coating. The sample is then collected using a syringe and injected into analysis equipment.”

The method is based on measurement of a set of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), i.e. transient organic substances, in the patient’s exhaled breath. Tumour tissue in the lungs can be detected as a very early stage as it gives off a number of such substances including butanone and toluene.

Applicable for other diseases

“If the tumour is caught when it’s very small, it can be removed immediately, and the patient will in all likelihood get well again”, says Francesco Palmisano. “The heart of the system is an advanced and very compact UV spectroscope that uses high-energy UV-light – a technique based on several decades of research by Verner Lagesson and colleagues in Linköping. This means that reference data exists for a large number of VOC substances – over 1 300.”

“The concept we apply to lung cancer can be used to diagnose other diseases. Today there are almost no clinical methods based on exhaled breath analysis – exceptions include analysis used in the diagnosis of gastric ulcers (Helicobacter pylori).”

Support enabled clinical experience

The system has been under development since 2011. Firstly, the equipment had to be scaled down to provide a clinically viable instrument. A couple of years later the instrument’s function was tested at the Karolinska Institute. More thorough studies, funded by Swelife, were conducted in 2016.

“The funding helped us with the initial tests and clinical trials”, says Francesco Palmisano. “We gained extensive experience about the routines for the instrument, for example how samples are to be collected and how the results are to be delivered. The analytical part is just the heart of the system – we learned how the entire chain needs to be developed in order to create a commercially viable product.”